There’s $42.9 billion in private-foundation funding available. How can you get a piece of the pie?
Private-foundation fund-raising expert John Greenhoe, Director of Foundation Relations and Development Communications at Western Michigan University, Kalamazoo, Mich., says it’s an important question to ask in uncertain economic times.
“It’s wise to diversify if you can and not rely entirely on the federal government,” Greenhoe says. He addressed this topic on a recent Webinar entitled “Family Foundations: A Rising Force in Research Funding” sponsored by PI Leader.
Here are Greenhoe’s seven keys to improving your level of funding from private foundations:
1. Talk in terms of benefits to the foundation’s mission,not your research. You’ll be dealing mostly with family foundations, which require a different approach than public agencies.
“With federal agencies, it’s not a problem to submit highly technical proposals,” Greenhoe told conferees. “That’s not true with family foundations. They often don’t have scientific backgrounds. You need to shift the dialogue.”
Weak approach: Research auditory neuropathy.
Better: Help kids with hearing problems.
Key: Make sure your proposal fits their mission.
2. Use the relationship model. The key to family foundations is building relationships. They often are minimally staffed and informally run. See if you can meet (through networking) and get to know the board members. Often they can offer advice and suggestions you won’t find anywhere else.
3. Do your homework before the initial contact. You can target local and regional foundations, as well as ones suited to your research. Check out GuideStar, the Foundation Center, and similar Web sites to find foundations whose missions line up with your program.
4. Seek information only on the first phone call. Soliciting doesn’t work well on an initial phone call. Instead, dig for information in a brief, focused way. (If the phone isn’t an option, consider the same approach via e-mail or formal letter.) You want to obtain as much guidance as possible. Questions to consider:
- Baseline questions. What are the deadlines for proposals? When does the board meet and how often? If the foundation says it accepts proposals year-round and doesn’t have deadlines, don’t believe it. That’s why you ask the board meeting time — you want to be on the right side of the meeting.
- Odds-assessment questions. How many applications do you receive/did you receive this year? What percentage do you fund? What is the typical grant amount? What are some favorite ideas that usually get serious consideration?
Note: Don’t give up if you’re out of their league, Greenhoe says. Some family foundations may not be used to working at university budget levels, but may make an exception if they’re excited enough about the project. Example: In an initial phone call, Greenhoe was told that the foundation never gives more than $10,000. His group asked for $20,000. “They liked our proposal so much they gave us $50,000,” Greenhoe says.
- Open-ended questions. What are some recently funded initiatives? Pet peeves? Review criteria that would be helpful for our organization to know?
This kind of information will help you guide the application process, knowing what to avoid and what to underscore.
“Try to get a personal meeting with a director or the board, but it’s OK if you can’t,” says Greenhoe. At this stage, you’re just looking for information. If possible, set up a conference call with key decision-makers to get more information and build relationships. The idea is to get them excited about what your research means to them.
5. Follow up. Write a targeted letter describing who you are, what your research is, how it fits with the foundation’s objectives, and that you’re seeking funding. Limit it to two pages, but ask to be allowed to present a full proposal.
Then follow up again with a phone call. For small family foundations, make the call about two weeks after the expected arrival of your letter. For larger foundations, give them three or four weeks. That’s enough to review the material.
“Foundations respond to people who are persistent, not pushy,” said Greenhoe.
6. Talk about publicity on projects. One terrific way to make your point about the value of your research: Show how past projects have been publicized. Greenhoe recommends publicizing existing projects in your university publications and, if possible, local press. Private foundations tend to respond to well to publicity; it helps them visualize the results of your research.
7. Be a gatekeeper. This is controversial, Greenhoe says, but it helps solve a key problem with private-foundation fund raising — uncoordinated or scattershot proposals from several principal investigators from the same institution. It may puzzle the foundation board about your institution’s priorities.
Greenhoe says he offered to be the gatekeeper for any proposal out of WMU. The result is that, whenever that foundation gets a call from WMU, it’s routed back to Greenhoe. That way, his institution can approach the foundation in a coordinated, strategic way.
Note: As you might imagine, this can open a can of worms among PIs competing for different projects. But if it’s only a question of working out details with a couple of other PIs, it might be worth doing.
Finally, PIs shouldn’t be discouraged by the economy, Greenhoe says. While giving is down this year, the overall trend is upward.
“A lot of foundations are telling folks they aren’t taking on projects,” he says. But he expects the purse strings to loosen up next year. “That’s why it’s key to build relation-ships now.”